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  • Mitch Blatt

Woke to Wokeness

What does “woke” mean? It originates from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and basically means “to be aware of White supremacy and Black oppression in society.” But somewhere along the line, the popular usage expanded to include any sort of social justice issue, not just Black oppression. Conservatives, and moderates on the Left, used the term to refer to what in the past might have been called “political correctness gone mad.” I think we can all identify examples of this online, perhaps in the news media, and in our day to day lives.

As our culture marches toward the future, we’re left with a question: Is being “woke” good or bad?

Yes, but...

If you ask me, it’s good. The problem is if we take “being woke” too far and veer into extremism—if the overzealous antics you’d expect from something like South Park or Saturday Night Live transform from satire into reality. If or when that happens, we end up alienating those around us and making social justice look bad, setting “the cause” back instead of moving it forward. On a more personal scale, we damage our relationships and ability to have productive conversations, not to mention our mental health.

If we constantly look for something, we’ll find it, even if it’s not there—our brains will say, “I’m not seeing any red circles, but my person is actively looking for red circles. They’d feel bad if they didn’t find any, so I’ll either make some up or expand my criteria for what counts as a red circle.” This could apply to watching a video and pointing out “the” stop sign if you’ve been instructed to, even if there’s no stop sign in the scene; or to finding that various things everyone else considers mundane and benign help to perpetuate societal oppression of a minority group. Seeing oppressors in the micro scale comes across like a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist who sees symbols of the Illuminati in pop music and Hollywood movies, which I think we all know is hazardous to one’s mental health and social life. Seeing everything in terms of power dynamics and power struggles between oppressor and oppressed fosters a cynical mentality where you view things as black-and-white, us versus them, “all people are bigoted due to unconscious biases”—these are precisely the things that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies as harmful cognitive distortions. Ascribing bigoted intent to a person’s actions (rather than “they misspoke” or “I misunderstood”), is an example of what CBT calls “jumping to conclusions.” If you’re assuming that you’re surrounded by enemies (overgeneralization), that large-scale systems are set up to hinder your progress in life (blaming), and that people who don’t actively try to change the system are complicit in it, then you’re in a perfect storm for things like learned helplessness, resentment, and feeling like you’ll never be anything other than a victim (negative filtering); those assumptions place your “locus of control” as external to you, and you get mad at the world and lash out against injustice—whether it’s real or imagined.

I’m not alone in this opinion. In the Psychology Today article The Psychology of “Wokeism,” article author Michael Karson Ph.D., J.D. says that “Wokeness, in my view, is a good thing [...]. Awareness of unfairness in the treatment of others not only makes the world a better place and us better people, it creates a culture in which the marginalized receive empathy instead of blame. Everyone has marginalized thoughts, feelings, and desires. Everyone has a history of managing unfair expectations and humiliations. A woke culture would be a pleasure to live in for everyone. But every movement is susceptible to becoming the thing it despises. [...] On the political left, wokeness sometimes drifts into wokeism—a system of thought and behavior characterized by intolerance, policing the speech of others, and proving one’s own superiority by denouncing others. [...] But two wrongs don’t make a right.” We can’t fight hatred and intolerance with more hatred and intolerance; we need to empathize with and humanize people, even if we don’t like them; lack of empathy, removing things from context, makes it easier to demonize people. In the article 8 Ideas for Managing Hatred, Karson says that, “Hatred wants others to suffer as we have suffered. Love wants to spare other people those agonies.” Forming “tribes,” splitting people into “us” and “them,” is sadly human nature; even chimps do it. The cure for hate is to expand “us” to include all of humanity. Karson’s ideas include the following: make people feel included, change policies instead of people, and don’t assume that you can know someone’s experience just by their readily apparent characteristics. We should promote humanity’s “glories”—empathy, forgiveness, creativity, humor, and critical thinking—Karson says, and I agree (but adding “love” and “compassion” to that list).

In his New York Times opinion piece Why Wokeness Will Fail, Bret Stephens talks about two types of protests: the ones that believe “the American system is ultimately geared to fulfill its inner promises — of equality, unalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness, e pluribus unum, a more perfect union.” and the ones that turn against the system, either believing that it won’t fulfill those promises, or disagreeing with the promises in the first place. For nearly 250 years, the first type has been more successful than the second, wanting to build the country up instead of tear it down. Wokeness, Stephens says, falls into the second category with its “Orwellian” policing of language and acting like things like the Civil Rights movement never happened, or like national scandals such as the murder of George Floyd are normal events. As he puts it, “In the long run, Americans have always gotten behind protest movements that make the country more open, more decent, less divided. What today is called Woke [sic] does none of those things. It has no future in the home of the free.”

Something that’s important to remember is that mundane content doesn’t get clicks or views, exceptional content that stirs up our emotions does—the sort of extreme overreactions you’d find in “Social Justice Warrior cringe compilation” or “conservative cringe compilation” videos aren’t an accurate representation of what the people in them, or anyone, is like in everyday life. Shock and outrage get clicks online, and things like “cringe compilations” are just small shocking snapshots of a person’s life. I’d wager that something similar happens with “everything is racist, everything is sexist, and you have to point it all out”—pointing it out makes us feel good; having access to “secret knowledge” and being able to spot hidden things makes us feel superior to those who don’t. In our minds, we move from ordinary people to underdogs living out something out of a thriller movie. Outrage can, unfortunately, be addictive; it’s all too easy to go from justified to unjustified outrage and forget that our opposition is just as human as we are.

...We Should Cool our Jets

So, what’s the bottom line? It’s bad to get overzealous, but we’re kind of wired to feel rewarded when we do (reinforced by social approval from our fellow woke peers, or by seeing them punish bigots), so we need a way to rewire that. How? Well, we can do our best to, if we witness overzealous behavior (toppling statues, violently protesting, etc.), calmly suggest a less-zealous alternative action. If we want to push people toward positive change instead of away from it, we need to curb our zeal, cultivate self-awareness of our cognitive biases and distortions, and come together for civil discussion and debate. If we stay in bubbles and echo chambers, we can never move forward together. Dialogue cannot be shared in violence or resentment.

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